by Eric Talmadge
TOKYO (AP) – Runners from Hokkaido in the north and tropical Okinawa in the south are making their way across Japan to Nagano, where the first Winter Games in Asia in nearly three decades will open next month.

The relay began today on the southern island of Okinawa, with high school distance runner Miwa Ishiki taking the torch from Gov. Masahide Ota on a course that will lead up the coast of the Sea of Japan.

The ceremony was held at a memorial to the nearly 200,000 people believed to have died in the battle for Okinawa in 1945, the last major land campaign of World War II.

“It is very significant that the flame, symbol of the Olympics, departs from this memorial to peace,” Ota said.

A second set of runners started today from Sapporo, the largest city on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido and the first Asian city to play host to the Winter Games.

Sapporo was host in 1972, and although Seoul was the site of the Summer Games in 1988, Nagano will mark the Winter Olympics’ return to Asia after a 26-year hiatus.

Akitsugu Konno, who won a ski jumping silver medal in the 1972 games, was the first torchbearer on the route from Sapporo. Junichi Ishida, a well-known actor and TV personality, led runners on a third course heading toward Nagano along Japan’s Pacific coast.

Some 1,200 runners and several thousand escorts will carry the three torches through all 47 of Japan’s prefectures on a trek of 690 miles before arriving in Nagano for the Feb. 7 opening ceremony.

The games are scheduled to end Feb. 22.

Midori Ito, a figure skating silver medalist in Albertville in 1992, will have the honor of lighting the flame at the opening ceremony – though exactly how she is to do that remains a secret.

Organizers say they are planning to pepper the opening with lots of Japanese culture, including an ancient ritual, performed by sumo wrestlers, that is believed to ward off evil spirits and bad luck.

Pillars will also be set up to symbolize the sanctity of the venue where the opening ceremony is to be held.

Not all in Japan are welcoming that idea.

The inclusion of such elements from the native Shinto religion in a government-backed event has irked some civil activists and Christian groups, who see it as a violation of the country’s constitutional separation of church and state.

But the critics remain a tiny minority, and after what has been a very bumpy run-up to the games, organizers are much more concerned with other potential problems that lie ahead.

The Nagano Olympics are expected to be the largest ever, with a record 71 countries registered to participate and a schedule that includes three new sports – curling, women’s ice hockey and snowboarding.

Organizers have been stung by complaints that some of the venues are substandard, and are still working out a new course for the men’s downhill skiing race because of complaints the original course was too short.

With just one month to go, however, Nagano’s fickle weather is now foremost on their minds.

Forecasters say the El Nino warming pattern could mean less snow on venues at lower altitudes. To keep on top of the situation organizers have set up one of the most elaborate weather watching arrangements the Olympics have ever seen.

“It is a very severe situation,” Nobuyuki Fukushima, mayor of the village where downhill skiing and jumping events will be held, said in a news conference Monday.

Such concerns were eased a bit by a new blanket of snow that fell on the Nagano area today.

But the forecast continues to be for less now than usual in the weeks ahead, and even the lighting of the flame last month was not without its bad omens. The ritual in Olympia, Greece, was marred by rain and near freezing temperatures.

Copyright 1997 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP news report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without prior written authority of The Associated Press.